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Winemaker Denis Malbec cast large influence over North Coast wine industry

Denis and May-Britt Malbec. (Courtesy photo)

BILL SWINDELL,

Denis Malbec was born to be a winemaker, family and friends said.

In fact, Malbec was born at the Château Latour in Pauillac, France, where his father and grandfather both worked and where he later would become the cellar master and enologist.

He later moved with his wife, May-Britt, to the North Coast, where he became a consulting winemaker at prestigious brands throughout Napa and Sonoma counties.

The couple later opened up their own Notre Vin label — which translates to “our wine” in French — as calling the label “Malbec” would have undoubtedly caused confusion due to the wine varietal of the same name.

“He was born to make wine,” May-Britt Malbec said of her husband, who died in an early morning car crash Saturday in Yountville.

“He had an understanding of wines and winemaking that I have never seen in any other person,” she said.

Her husband’s wine palate was so sharp, he could detect a difference of as little as half a percentage point while blending, she said.

Malbec, 46, of St. Helena, was killed when his 2016 Mercedes-Benz ran off Washington Street at an unknown speed around 1:10 a.m. near Highway 29.

A passenger, Josh Phelps, 30, the winemaker and co-founder of Taken Wine Co. in St. Helena, escaped serious injury.

The CHP is investigating the cause. May-Britt Malbec said Sunday she hasn’t been told any further details of the crash.

As a preteen growing up surrounded by barrels and vineyards, Malbec would rather ask for wine than candy for his birthday, his wife said.

His passion for the industry continued as he studied viticulture and enology in Bordeaux and later in Reims, in the Champagne region.

He started as a cellar worker at Château Latour in 1993 and later became cellar master and enologist, making vintages from 1994 to 1999.

During his time there, he met and fell in love with May-Britt, a Swedish sommelier who came to handle public relations at the winery.

The two visited California in 2000, and Denis Malbec began attracting interest among area vintners after the Underground Wine Journal wrote a 10-page story on him, May-Britt said.

“His idea was that winemaking starts in the vineyard,” she said.

Her husband came to appreciate the maturity that came with North Coast grapes during a harvest, especially in contrast to Bordeaux, where grapes are picked with a hint of green, May-Britt Malbec said.

“The key word is balance,” she said of Malbec’s winemaking philosophy. “Nothing should stick out.”

The two decided to open up their own consulting company. They traveled continually back and forth between the two continents, before putting down roots in St. Helena in 2004.

Malbec served as a consultant for the Kapcsàndy Family Winery in Yountville. The couple also served as winemakers at the Blankiet Estate in Yountville and Sodaro Estate Winery in Napa Valley.

The two were founding winemakers in 2008 at Captûre Wines, with an estate vineyard on Pine Mountain near Cloverdale. In late 2014, Jackson Family Wines purchased the brand and the Malbecs left the label.

The couple also had projects in Lake County, such as their Aliénor label, as their work and personal life continually intertwined.

“I know there are couples that can’t be around 24/7,” May-Britt Malbec said. “We were like lifting each other up.”

Malbec also served as a mentor to many younger winemakers in the area, quick to offer up advice and encouragement.

“He was probably the best teacher I ever knew,” said Mario Sculatti, a budding winemaker from St. Helena with his own wine brand. “It was an absence of ego.”

Malbec also was known for his gardening, including a vegetable garden at his home, and his love of opera and classical music.

Services are pending.

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 521-5223 or bill.swindell@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @BillSwindell.